The Music of Ruins: Unfinished Scales in Tripoli

Maqam Bayati = Fortune

I walk the hills of Koura
village after village

the winter rain directs me;
I walk the remnants of hearts

with balconies of scattered voices
like a century wrinkled

on shattered windows
I walk to ask you

if you ached
between two truths

I walk to ask what
these olive trees hid for you

And when I reach Amioun
your feet become mine

your lean body becomes mine
your vigor becomes mine

The sky opens the sea
and you tell me how to play

this place for you

À Fortune Nicolas Matouk

Maqam Ajam = Josephine

You told me, arrête de pleurer
and for years I didn’t understand

you were preparing me
for the many deaths to come

You told me, live all the life you can
et n'oublie pas d'aller au Liban

And ever since you’ve gone, I ask:
Where is the band playing tonight,
where are you tonight?

And each time that day returns:
Dalida is playing
Fairuz isn’t far

your daughter is dancing
you are watching her
I am watching you

then you hold my hand
and the world clears

I’d do anything to tell you
I’m here

then I see you waving from the shore

À Josephine Matouk Deeb

Maqam Saba = Nagib

On est dans les bras d’un autre pays—

The absence of what we love
is our greatest ache

then we discover it stays absent

that we are rooted in our broken voice
but still—



we tell each other,

sail back

À mon père

Maqam Sikah = Shadow

You place your forehead                                                                                        against mine

and at the split in the street

ask me where to
and I ask you what I left

We practice disappearing
touch water feel the stone

ask ourselves

if what we end up stealing
is ours all along

We excavate our bodies
with our breaths

you place a kiss on my shoulder
I place one on your neck

light slips on our shadow.
eternity isn’t ours to take

we let the city measure our heart
without telling us its width


Takht Trabulsi

We wait for them to begin—

Our old hearts

hymns full of holes

walls full of bullets

interrupt our memories

so the walls can step aside

so tilted light misses the turns

and we think, this ache

this speed around distance

this tangled echo this wind

this root we unwind

this water around this wailing

this misting night

this tune that saves us

from what we never name

voices tunneling voices.

And then they begin—

the oud qanun rabab ney

the violin riq dumbek

we slip into

drift into their sound

that tells us

to improvise ecstasy

that our murmurs

will cross the doubt of birds

the abandoned trains

the wild untouched silence

that here

dust is an unwritten lyric

the Levantine violet

is composing


Note: Maqam (plural maqamat) literally means “place” in Arabic; and it’s the name of the melodic scales used in Arabic music. Every maqam possesses emotional content. Certain emotions evoked by these maqamat were chosen for this ensemble of poems, namely Maqam Bayati (vitality and joy); Maqam Ajam (brightness, happiness, majesty, pride and aliveness); Maqam Saba (sadness and pain); and Maqam Sikah (tenderness and love). Takht is a musical ensemble.

Nathalie Handal

Nathalie Handal’s recent books include the flash collection The Republics, lauded as “one of the most inventive books by one of today’s most diverse writers.” She is the winner of the Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing as well as the Arab American Book Award. She is the author of the bestselling collection The Invisible Star; the critically acclaimed Poet in Andalucía; and Love and Strange Horses, winner of the Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award, which The New York Times says is “a book that trembles with belonging (and longing).” Handal is a professor at Columbia University and writes the literary travel column "The City and the Writer" for Words without Borders. She was a Visiting Writer at AUB, Spring 2017.

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